WASHINGTON -- A century ago, when European Jews were migrating to the United States, most settled in eastern cities, where they worked as peddlers or in sweatshops.
But some, longing for wide-open spaces and the chance to farm, continued west to Minnesota and the Dakotas. When they got there, they found an alien landscape, people and culture.
This unusual meeting of Jewish immigrants and the prairie is captured in a National Jewish Museum exhibit, produced by the Jewish Historical Society of the Upper Midwest and the Minnesota Historical Society. It tells the story through photos and recollections gleaned from manuscripts and oral histories.
An introductory video features a woman's first impressions of the land: no horses, no trees, no rivers -- just prairie and sky.
"We were taught to be proud of our Judaism, but we didn't want to proclaim it. It tells you of the insecurity that existed in those years in Brainerd." -- Marion Newman Jewish immigrant
One photo, taken around 1890, shows the Feinstein family of Zeeland, N.D., looking especially out of place. The mother sits in front of a sod house, playing the guitar; her older son, standing with a shotgun nearly his size; a younger boy, perhaps 6, sitting with a shotgun in his lap; and a little girl in a long dress, looking at her mother.
But the disconnect could also be positive. Jews fleeing Russia had known anti-Semitism as a way of life, and experienced far less of it in their new country.
"I remember vaguely incidents having to do with gentiles and how hard it was for our parents to accept a kindness from them, because it was so unusual to them," recalled Rose Rapaport Schwartz, whose family lived in the Ashley-Wishek area of North Dakota in the early 1900s. "My mother once got her hand caught in a pump and a goy (non-Jew) helped her out, and she never got over it."
Befitting the exhibit's title -- "Unpacking on the Prairie: Jewish Women in the Upper Midwest" -- many of the stories are told by women.
In another oral history, Rose Mill Sweed recounted being the only Jew in her school near Edmore, N.D., near the turn of the century and telling the teacher she couldn't ride to the class picnic because it fell on the Sabbath. Her teacher said she could walk the two miles but not by herself.
"Who would like to walk with Rose?" the teacher asked.
"There was complete silence for a few seconds and I finally got enough courage to raise my eyes and to my great astonishment, nearly everyone in the class had their hand up," Sweed said. "We ended up with the whole class hiking to and from the picnic and that was great fun. Not a worry or care in the world!"
Still, that wasn't always the case. A woman named Marion Newman, who lived in Brainerd, Minn., in the 1920s and '30s, said that her family displayed the traditional Friday night candles in such a way that a passer-by wouldn't see them.
"We were taught to be proud of our Judaism, but we didn't want to proclaim it," she said. "It tells you of the insecurity that existed in those years in Brainerd."
Between 1881 and 1924, more than 2 million Jews moved to the United States from Europe, many from Russia. In that country, Jews were barred from farming, and some wanted to give it a try when they arrived here.
The exhibit's curator, Linda Mack Schloff, said that a Jewish Agriculture Society spread the word to Jews living on the East Coast.
"In some cases, people found out about it from someone on a soapbox in Brooklyn," she said. "Let's say you're working in a sweatshop in New York, working seasonal labor, getting laid off every year. This was a chance to own land."
Schloff is also director of the Jewish Historical Society of the Upper Midwest, in St. Paul, and author of an exhibit companion book, "And Prairie Dogs Weren't Kosher."
Even though Jews were barred from farming in Russia, many were more attuned to the pace of rural life, Schloff said.
"That's not to say that what they found in the Dakotas was anything like what they found in Russia," she said.
At its peak in the 1930s, the Jewish population reached 50,000 in Minnesota and the Dakotas. But the Jewish presence in the Dakotas and rural Minnesota didn't last. Taking advantage of the Homestead Act, many farmed the land for five years before taking title to it, then sold it to go into business, Schloff said.
"It was such a difficult life," Schloff said of farming. "They just didn't stay. It's so arid. You're not going to get a good crop very often. Who would your kids marry? And the schools only went up to eighth grade in those areas. You could not make a good life."
Some became small-town merchants. "The general store was called the 'Jew Store,"' she said. "Truly, it was not pejorative."
Now, Jews make up less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the already sparsely populated Dakotas. In Minnesota, where some Jews settled in the Twin Cities, the percentage is higher -- nine-tenths of 1 percent.
A photo of a Jewish cemetery in Ashley, N.D., taken in 1970, makes the point bluntly.
"A cemetery such as this one," the caption reads, "is often the only reminder that Jews once lived in a place."
The exhibit runs through Sept. 23, 2001
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